Friday, December 31, 2010

Adventures in Travel

I took a day over the New Year's weekend to get out with the family. My wife and #1 son had gone to a really cool place on the other coast called Mote Aquarium, and they wanted all of us to go this time. They have a tremendous emphasis on husbandry, so they raise a lot of the species that they have on display instead of going out to capture everything.

I was the most impressed with the cuttlefish. They also have an octopus there, and the octopus certainly seems smarter than the cuttlefish, but he's shy and doesn't interact with his toys all the time. The cuttlefish are five in a tank, and they interact with each other a lot.



In addition, they have a lot of the scary/ugly specimens like frogfish, rockfish, fire worms, and a stargazer. In the same room as all the ugly guys, there's a big tank that makes some jellyfish circulate around without touching the sides like they were in a clothes dryer or something.

They had some giant squid, but as they don't really keep in captivity they were all preserved specimens. Also, they're bleached out and kinda creepy.

After the aquarium closed, we went to a nearby beach that Google maps gave astoundingly bad directions for. Despite the bad directions, with a reasonable idea of where it was that we were supposed to be headed, we managed to get there before it got dark. On the one hand, I want to say what beach it is so I can specifically complain about the directions in the hope that they will get fixed, on the other hand if they get fixed I worry that this beach will get overrun. So, I will just be vague and say that it's more a place for finding shark's teeth than laying out and getting a tan.

#2 son wanted a water fountain, we found a rather simple one on the side of a wooden walkway leading to the restrooms, We also found two large women washing their feet in the water fountain instead of the Dalek-looking shower devices by the beach - they were redoing the boardwalk so maybe they weren't working yet. A smart-looking Japanese-American man in a Callaway Golf pullover showed the two women that there was a hose bib at foot level, much better for washing their feet off, and they kept on with their slow efforts at the water fountain. We interjected between washings to take a drink. #2 son had a little, and said he didn't need any more. I tried to ask him what it tasted like, but with the two women there, he wouldn't say anything to me. One of the women answered for him and said "Yucky." Since #2 son wouldn't spit it out, it couldn't have been that bad. I tasted some, and it was somewhat metallic - not unlike the majority of well water in most of Florida. I told the women that it wasn't that bad, slightly metallic tasting, and that I had done a lot worse for water in the middle of nowhere. I picked up #2 son and started walking away. It had been enough time that the second woman would have finished washing her feet - and then I heard the water run again, a slight pause and a lot of spitting and choking. Presumably, they were not from Florida.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

SuperMonkeyCube, Toy Consultant

Typically, I am asked about video games and computers by coworkers, friends, and family for suggestions and advice. It has only been in the last ten years or so that I've become comfortable enough with talking to people that I am willing give a hand to random shoppers that look like they need help. The holidays is when it's really needed - people shopping for TV's don't always know what they're getting themselves into, and some parents are largely uninvolved with what their kids play so subsequently have no idea what they're doing in the video game aisle at all. Someone has to do it - the employees are more worried about making sure they don't run out of things and have the right prices posted, and I can certainly understand their priorities.

This year, I think I managed to do some good without feeling like it was ruining anybody's day. The most disappointing thing I had to tell anyone this holiday season was that they still don't make Halo 2 for Mac - but you would think that Apple owners have been used to that kind of disappointment for years. One good company (Bungie) dedicates themselves to making a good first-person-shooter for Mac, and Bill Gates had to go and buy them so the second game was a XBox/PC exclusive. So exclusive, in fact, that they had to give longtime Windows XP users the short end of the stick with their first, misguided forays into the brand of 'Games for Windows'. If you wanted to play Halo 2 on PC, you had to upgrade to Vista. At least these days, Boot Camp or Parallels can get you around a problem like that. When Apple was still using PowerPC CPU's, it was not the norm for Apple to get games ported over from the PC version.

I had to tell a woman looking for printer ink that she had to go to the local office supply store since Walmart doesn't stock that much Epson compared to the other brands that they have - she didn't seem that upset about that since she was so happy with the printer in general.

I explained some of the mysteries of the XBox 360 to an actual Microsoft employee early one morning before having any Mountain Dew. He was lost looking at all of the plastic cards for points and Live subscriptions.

My favorite one of all this season was getting someone in the LEGO section at ToysRUs to consider the more technically difficult 'TECHNIC" line of products instead of just getting their kid larger and larger regular LEGO sets that really don't increase in difficulty much. Hopefully, there's a kid somewhere putting together a backhoe that really moves like a backhoe - and it's my fault.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Cubing, and a lot of explanations.

I hear the same things over and over from a variety of people when they see me manipulate a Rubik’s Cube in public.

“There’s like a mathematical formula to it, right?”

“I used to just take the stickers off.”
“But how do you know where it’s supposed to go?”
“I can only get (two/three) sides.”
“I could never do it.”
and the variation
“I tried looking it up ( on the Internet ) and I still couldn't figure it out.”


I will address these here as well, but I was so excited about a new question that it compelled me to talk about this topic at all. I finally got a new question the other day, standing in line at a local big box store in the supposed “Express” lane.

“Is there a rhythm to it?”

I’m sure that this is a reaction to the way that I do some of the multiple-move manipulations (known to cubers as “finger tricks”) in a way that doesn't bind up the mechanism of the cube. If you try to do some moves too fast for a given cube, the pieces just hang up on each other and don’t turn or possibly you will pop a piece out. In a competition, I suppose that you would want to push yourself as much as possible, and the occasional pop would be acceptable if it meant you had other fast times. In line at the store, popping a piece is largely unacceptable to me and it detracts from the showmanship aspect. If people are entertained a little, then it’s rewarding. It’s a nerdy sort or rewarding, but I’ll take it. If I’m digging under the edge of a cash register for a plastic piece, it’s a headache. So, the solution is to keep it at the speed that you know the cube will work well at. For me, even if they’re timing me, it’s better to keep it at a reasonable speed most of the time so I can look ahead to see the next thing to do.

So let’s go back to these other ones.

“There’s like a mathematical formula to it, right?”
The answer is “Yes”, but I always tell people “No”. That mostly has to do with the fact that I’m not able to easily explain why small groups with limited transformations behave in a complex way with rigorous constraints. Maybe I need to re-read all of my set theory and the Christoph Bandelow book “Inside Rubik’s Cube and Beyond” again. The other reason is that when most people say "math", I assume they're talking abut square roots, long division, and ax2+bx+c=0. I never assume they're talking about set theory, bijective functions, or anything with the word 'abelian' in it.

“I used to just take the stickers off.”
I typically tell people that adhesive never works as good once it’s been exposed to air. If you take the stickers off, not only will they likely be misaligned, but they will never stick as good as they originally did. When I re-sticker a cube, it involves cleaning the cube down to the plastic and sometimes even some light abrasion so new stickers have a fighting chance on a new surface.

“But how do you know where it’s supposed to go?”
This is the part where I start showing people - often by removing a piece of the cube - that there are edge pieces and corner pieces, and the center pieces attached to the framework in the middle of the cube. Explaining to them that the center pieces don't move relative to each other is somewhat difficult - I try to relate it to a die. One is always opposite six, five is always opposite two, three is always opposite four. No matter how you turn a die, the relative positions are still the same, and the framework of a Rubik's cube is no different. So, knowing the particular combination of colors on an edge or corner piece dictates where it should go. This is about where I start losing people, because once I pop the piece back in and start turning the faces of the cube, most people see 54 stickers again instead of eight corners, twelve edges and six centers.

"I can only get two sides."
This one I can believe, since it is possible to get two adjacent sides with only three pieces (two corners and the edge between them) completely correct. Those three pieces would be the pieces that comprises the edge between the two correct faces. The remaining ten pieces could be incorrectly placed. If the remaining pieces were correctly placed, there would only be two corners and five edges left, and if they were able to get as much as that done, they would have a real chance at the entire cube. Getting two opposite sides correct might be more difficult since 16 pieces would have to be correctly oriented, but no pieces would have to be correctly placed. This scenario seems unlikely for someone that can't actually solve a cube, I'd have to see it firsthand.

"I can only get three sides."
For as many times as I've heard this one, I never believe it. I'm going to have to start calling people out on this one, or at least pressing them for more details. It involves far too much of the cube being completed. When I solve a cube, the only time I have three sides done is when I am left with only two edges both of which are correctly placed but incorrectly oriented. Again, if you can get this much of the cube done, it seems unlikely that you would be completely unable to do the remainder. Most of the people that I know that have tried to solve the cube on their own fared much better once the corners were resolved, as a lot can be done with a cube without disturbing the corner pieces to move edges around.

This seems like a good time to mention that a cube cannot have only one edge flipped, or only one corner twisted. Edges flip in pairs, corners twist in opposite pairs or three in the same direction. You also cannot have only two pieces out of place. You can have three edges or three corners out of place, or two corners and two edges out of place. Those are the minimums. If you take a cube apart, and reassemble it at random, you only have a one in twelve chance of putting it in a solvable state. I suppose that some of these people that have done two or three sides are fighting against a tampered-with cube, but I don't really know.

"I could never do it."
You could be right about that, but it's true for a lot of things that if you think you can't, you can't. I don't find it to be any more challenging than playing bass or typing, and I would think that playing violin or trombone would be a lot harder than doing a Rubik's cube.

“I tried looking it up ( on the Internet ) and I still couldn't figure it out."
This is the part that I can understand - the standard notation for cube moves is not intuitive to everyone, especially when you're not thinking of the cube as having fixed sides. So if you see

RUR'URU2R' (or R'D'RD'R'D2R if you're old-school top-down) and you don't understand it, but you want to - feel free to ask.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Completion Bonus?

The day after Thanksgiving doesn't always feel like a Friday. Sure, I could go out to the stores and score some awesome deals, but I think it's the sort of shopping one would have to do without kids in tow. Frankly, I felt a little zombified - or maybe it was food coma, nobody was going to school, I wasn't going to Walmart. It seemed more like Saturday than Friday. I did a little bit of laundry, wrestled with the weed whacker, and put up a few strands of Christmas lights.

In between loads of laundry, I decided to pop in Pikmin 2 into the GameCube. Like its predecessor, once you beat the main game once, it opens up a "Challenge Mode". Where Pikmin has you play in the various areas from the single player game and try to grow as many Pikmin as you can in one day, each of Pikmin 2's challenges has you completing a small underground dungeon. Olimar and Louie command a small army of animal/plant hybrids that they call Pikmin - they are able to manipulate objects in the environment, and you cannot. You call them to you, throw them at objects to make them attack or carry them, and you have to figure out which of the five types of Pikmin are suitable for the task at hand. You get points for hauling back treasures, time left on the clock when you finish, and for how many Pikmin you have when you're done. There are 30 of these, unlike Pikmin's 5 areas in Challenge Mode. They are not all available at once, so you have a screen that shows you a leaf for each board that you have available, which turns into a white flower once you have completed it. If you are able to finish a board without losing any Pikmin in battle or to environmental hazards, it shows a pink flower instead of a white one. So, for years I had 24 pink flowers and 6 white ones on that screen. At some point I came back to the game and reduced it to 2 white ones, and then over the summer I reduced it to only one white flower.

Now where was I? Yes, in between loads of laundry. I pop the game in Friday, thinking I will give that last white flower another chance. Why do I bother to get them all? I bother to get them all because I know that the game has one more cinema that I haven't seen that is only unlocked by getting all pink flowers in challenge mode. I know that this movie is called "Louie's Dark Secret". I'm sure I could have just gone on youtube and watched the video, but I felt that it would be more rewarding if I actually did it myself. Happily, I finally got it - I went a little quickly and skipped a few treasures in the interest of having more time on the last level of the dungeon, and it paid off. My score was not as high as it could have been, but you get a pink flower for not losing Pikmin, and the score doesn't really matter. I'm not going to spoil it here, since I don't want to ruin it for anyone else. However, I will say that actually getting a perfect run on the last board was way more rewarding than the bonus movie. The one that I had not done until yesterday is the Emperor's Realm, and there are lots of opportunities to screw it up. The first four levels of the dungeon are easy enough, but each one has things that will trip you up and lose a Pikmin or two if you're not careful. The last level is genuinely difficult in the face of the time restriction. There are only three enemies, but only one of them has the key to the exit. A little bit of luck helps. If you don't get the key the first or second time, you don't have quite enough time or opportunity to defeat the third Emperor Bulblax.

Pikmin 2's bonus movie was cute - I think it might have been funnier for me if I had gotten it while I was still playing the game all the time and was more wrapped up in the storyline - but it wasn't much of a reward for mastery. Resident Evil 4 had the Handcannon that you got for skillfully getting a 5 star ranking in all of the Mercenary Mode levels, and that seemed like a reward. It actually gave you a reason to go back and replay the single player game, especially if you were able to upgrade it to infinite ammo. It completely changes the dynamic of the game without having to change any other part of the game - because you go from carefully conserving ammo to John Woo-style shell casings everywhere. Yes, it makes the game easier, but if you have already completed the game the hard way, it's a fun reward.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

HD Radio's last stand

HD Radio - which is neither High Definition nor Hybrid Digital, but instead just a brand name intended to make us think they meant one of those two things - was really trying to get people interested this holiday season. I really have to hand it to the consortium behind HD Radio. They're trying awfully hard to make their system viable for consumers. It's inexpensive, there's no subscription fees, it gives people more choices over things to listen to, and there are even hand held ones about to be available, but I suspect that they may have missed the proverbial boat.

Sadly, like over-the-air digital TV, there are a large number of people that could take advantage of it, but most of those people are paying a monthly subscription for a slightly better service, even despite the current economic climate. Some are just choosing to do without entirely. ( I think I am in the second category because I can't be bothered to change the stereo out in my car.)

I guess in the case of HD radio, the impediment for me is that between my CD player and analog FM, there's usually enough for me to listen to most of the time that I don't feel like I need to upgrade. Sure the sound is better, but that strategy stopped working a while ago. I cite as evidence the low adoption rates of SuperAudioCD, HDCD, and DVD-Audio and instead a move to lower fidelity mp3 players.

What's even more amazing about the current batch of HD radio ads that I hear on the radio is a lack of a specific product. At least when you watch a Pixar movie on DVD, they're hyping how awesome Blu-Ray is, and telling you what Disney and Pixar movies you can get on Blu-Ray. With the HD radio ads, it's more like:

"HD radio is awesome. Just ask us and we'll tell you. Go buy one anywhere!"

I used to hear Circuit City branded ads for HD radio, and I've been hearing a few for Radio Shack, but in addition to those, I've also hear a lot of generic unbranded HD radio ads (presumably bought by the consortium to increase their reach). I guess that this holiday season is some sort of all-out-last-ditch effort to get people on HD radio.

I suppose it couldn't be worse than the sky-is-falling approach they took on TV's "Switch to Digital!" But my real question, now that some of the holiday tinsel has cleared - did anybody actually get HD radio as a present? Do you even know anyone who has it?

MVC Novermber 2010 update

I was happy to see that She-Hulk made the official roster for Marvel vs Capcom 3 - maybe not as happy if it had been a surprise, as she was another character that had been on the leaked list months ago. I was a little surprised to see Zero on the Capcom side, since he got such a lukewarm reception in Tatsunoko vs Capcom 3 (although not as bad as Volnutt's) even though he was on the leaked list. I am under the impression that people want the plain, vanilla, regular, standard issue Mega Man before any of the other guys from the franchise show up. Certainly, I would understand fan's annoyance if it were one of the other franchises - like if a game had Gouken and Sean in it, but not Ryu, or Nero and Arkham, but not Dante.


The thing that cheesed me the most about the most recently posted roster was not the fact that the inclusion of Spencer from Bionic Commando escaped my notice, but the three little letters next to the newly posted Jill Valentine and Shuma-Gorath.

D.

L.

C.
















I'll show you the one for Shuma here.










It is my opinion that having DLC characters in a fighting game splinters the audience, and makes playing online more of a pain in the neck than it needs to be. I have no issue with DLC outfits, since they don't affect the gameplay.

And of course, if you get the crazy special version that includes a one month unlimited subscription to Marvel digital Comics and a fancy art book, they'll include the Jill and Shuma-Gorath DLC when they come out. It's a $70 version, though. (I presume the regular version will be $60, of course.)

I hope that for a $10 premium we can at least get a Jill Valentine with that cute beret that she had in MvC2.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A quick video- Cubing with restrictions.

I brought the nerdy cube stuff today. It's a cube that's partially superglued together so you can only move two adjacent faces. I've had this for a while, and even though people talk about this particular subset of possible Rubik's cube moves from a mathematical sense, I haven't seen much in the way of discussion of how to solve it or its features. We'll declare the right face (yellow) and the down face (red) the two movable sides. Once both the URF corner and the URB corner are correctly placed, all of the corners are correctly placed. Once the three right face edges UR, RF, and RB are correctly placed and oriented, the remaining edges are all correctly oriented. So, the solution usually is:

1. Solve edge UR.
2. Solve the two corner-edge pairs (URF + RF) and (URB + RB).
3. Orient D corners (they are correctly placed automatically).
4. Permute D edges (the are correctly oriented automatically).




If there are any new-school cubers out there, you might make U and R the movable faces and solve DR first - upside down of what I just said. I originally started with the Nourse method, so I'm a little biased to R and D moves, even though it's a little harder to see what you're doing. Amazingly enough, this bias has overcome everything - even the fact that I'm a lefty who cubes right-handed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cheese or Twinkies?

I may have a problem with food.

I say this in particular because this morning I was madly searching my office for a cheese stick that I, in fact, had already eaten minutes before and have no recollection of.

Certainly, this is not as serious a problem as anorexia or bulimia, and I don't expect there to be a telethon for cheese amnesia anytime soon. Also, I'm calling dibs on "Cheese Amnesia" as an album title or a song name. It makes me think of how I fondly recall some things from the 80's until I actually see how bad they were.

But, back to the food thing. So I realize that while large portions of the world are undernourished because they don't have the sort of land that's conducive to farming, or don't have the resources to farm on the sort of scale that would actually feed the citizens, in America we tend to have the opposite problem with a similar result. We have so many food choices, and they are wildly stratified by price. What tends to happen is that inexpensive foods are consumed because we feel hungry, but the actual nourishment is a little secondary to price concerns. Who wants to go through the bother of cutting open an avocado - if it's even ripe enough to eat in the first place - if there are some perfectly formed Cheetos in that bag over there? Who wants to make a hummus wrap and take it to lunch if you can get tacos easily in the drive-through? Why would I want to have Lipton Brisk that tastes like instant tea instead of real tea?

Now if it's been shown that we're willing to forgo a lot of things to gain convenience, why hasn't someone made really healthy eating more convenient? Oh yeah - there's no money in it. The most important things that most people could do to improve their heath are quitting smoking, moderate exercise, and eating less. Not less butter, not less red meat, not less soda - just less anything. Figure out how many calories you normally have in a day, and pick a number a little less than that, and see if you're losing weight. Think I'm crazy? Check out Mark Haub's Twinkie Diet.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Taco Bell news, hot off the packet.

Our regular trio of taco sauces Mild, Hot, and Fire (although that's a stretch since the only difference I can discern between Hot and Fire is Hot has more water added to it) now has two new partners in the condiment bins - Verde and Fire-Roasted. The astute among you will notice that the packets are the same size as the other sauce packets, but say Border Salsa at the top instead of Border Sauce. Verde is in a green packet, not unlike the color of Kermit the Frog. Fire-Roasted is in a maroon packet, or maybe garnet. (Not ready to go out on a limb and say that it's purply-brown.)


Taco Bell has had "Green Sauce" for as long as I can remember, but they have always done a poor job of letting customers know that they have it, so it led a meager existence on the steam table with a small ladle in it, getting baked half to death. It was mostly a green chile sauce, and didn't really have much in the way of a tomatillo flavor. The Verde Border Salsa has tomatillos as its third ingredient, after water and green chiles. While most of you that have had real Mexican food will look down your nose at this packet with its soy additives and preservatives, this is a real leap forward for salsa verde in general. I think that if the public warms up to this newly accessible flavor, it will mean great news for tomatillo growers and aficionados (except for the if-you-like-it-now-because-I-liked-it-before-then-it-sucks hipsters).


The Fire-Roasted salsa has a smoky flavor, like what you might expect from a sauce that said "adobo" or "chipotle" on it somewhere, but the ingredients seem to indicate that the tomatoes are fire roasted. This isn't a bad flavor, but it's not for everyone. If you have inclinations for barbecue sauce and hot peppers, you might see if this is for you.


Unfortunately, between this newness of the sauce and the general popularity of Taco Bell on a Friday at lunchtime (especially the store in question), it was difficult to decide whether drive-through or walk-in was the better bet, but I took my chances with walk-in so that I didn't leave the car running. The drive-through line was backed up well past the speaker, but I also saw once I got in that they were similarly backed up inside the store. I saw six or seven people standing around by the counter and a couple more at the soda fountain. As it turned out, only the person in front of me had not ordered yet, and he tentatively went up to the counter to order shortly after I got there. He kept looking over his shoulder the whole time, like the Feds were watching him and he was just waiting for them to close in. I can't hear what he orders as the store is quite loud, and the man in front of me is ordering in broken English. I also can't make out what the cashier is repeating back to him, since she speaks a different variety of broken English.


Then, the source of the backwards looks appears - the man's wife walks into the store. He goes to talk to his wife for a second, away from the cash register. The talk, nod heads, and he turns back to the cashier and starts walking away, with an open hand that he waves as if to say "No, no, forget my order, we have to go". This is the part that I am most surprised about. The cashier gives him the most exaggerated "No, you didn't" look, including the side-to-side head move. Somehow, she calls him back to the register to make him finish placing the order that he has not even paid for yet. After watching him be bullied by the cashier in front of his own wife, I decide that perhaps I should go to my safer neighborhood Taco Bell and order through the drive-through.


I did grab a couple Verde packets before I left, though.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is it really HDTV?

It is currently estimated that around 10-20% of people paying for High Definition TV, and have a TV that could support High Definition, are still not actually watching any HD programming because their equipment is not correctly connected. What's odd, of course, is they haven't really noticed the difference. I would imagine that there is some amount of placebo effect – you are paying for HDTV, so it would be horrible to admit that you're not actually watching HDTV. On some level, perhaps some of our 10-20% know that there is something not quite right, but they don't know how to express it or they don't have any basis for comparison.


It doesn't help that between the switch to digital television, several format wars, and no less than six ways to hook up a television to a signal, the average TV watcher isn't really sure what the right way to connect the equipment is. Also, with the wide variety of devices out there, it's hard for the average person to know what the best way to hook them to their TV.


Coax – When we think of cable, as in cable TV, this is usually what we're talking about. This is the most common way that we get TV signals around in the analog world, but that's not to say that we can't get a digital signal through it. If you plug a coax cable into a device with a coax input, there's no guarantee that you'll get a visible signal, because the device you're plugging into has to be able to correctly decode the incoming signal. It's the proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.


Composite Video – This is an RCA connector, usually marked with a yellow connector body or a yellow strip around the connector body. This is the lowest tier of analog video. I remember that this one is the single video cable because a 'composite' is something that is formed from more than one ingredient and the ingredients remain distinct. In this case, the ingredients are the brightness signal and two signals of color information all multiplexed together into a single signal. (You don't need three signals of color information because you can figure out the third signal of color from knowing the brightness and the other two color signals.) In decoding these signals from each other, there's a small amount of inaccuracy which mostly occurs in sharp transitions from one color to another or from light to dark. We perceive this as softer edges when we're viewing a video processed this way.


If you're watching something on a VHS tape, this is as good as it's going to get. A better cable won't help.


S-Video – This is a 4-pin mini DIN connector – if you didn't know it was supposed to be plugged in a television, you might think it was for a PC mouse or keyboard. (Pro Tip – Don't try it, you'll bend the pins.) This is a little better than composite video, because the brightness signal has been separated from the two color signals. It's a little sharper than composite because the brightness is separated out, but the TV still has to decode the color signals from each other. This is mostly found on larger analog TV's and older DVD players - although some of you may remember the awesome Commodore monitors that were small TVs that supported S-Video.


Component Video - Technically this should be called 'YPbPr video', but I've never heard anybody actually call them 'Yipper' cables and it would take somebody a lot more pedantic than me to call it something that strange. I do see 'YPbPr' marked on the jacks on TV's and DVD players. These are RCA connectors, just like the composite video cables, but they're marked with Green (Y) Blue (Pb) and Red (Pr) This is one step farther than S-Video. The brightness signal gets its own cable, and the two color signals also both get their own cables.


It is not until you get to this point that you can really expect anything like an HD signal making it to your TV, but as always, consider the source. If you have a Wii or one of the previous generation consoles (Xbox, PlayStation 2, or GameCube ), and a TV with a component video input, getting the console-specific component video cables will insure that you can get the best picture possible. One caveat - GameCubes manufactured after May 2004 were made without the output jack marked "Digital AV Out" and thereby cannot have component video cables connected to them. Nintendo made it so you had to buy the component video cable from them directly instead of making it available in stores, and then wondered why hardly anybody bought them, so they stopped making GameCubes that could output better video.


DVI - This stands for Digital Video Interface, and the likely place to see this is on a computer video card. There are a couple of different versions of this connector, but it's hard to tell them apart without counting all the pins on the end of the connector. The connector body is the same in all cases, it's just not all of them have all of the pins connected. It's a large connector, almost as big as the old 36-pin parallel connectors that printers had before USB. Some early cable boxes had this, presumably so you could show off your brand new digital cable on a LCD computer screen. If you are connecting a computer to a large flat screen display, DVI is the way to go - but if the display only has HDMI inputs, it is possible to convert a DVI signal into an HDMI signal - but just the video part, of course. You probably will want to know your display's native resolution before you try to hook it up - if you're not sure what that means, ask questions before buying cables.


HDMI - HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. It's been designed to support a wide variety of video modes, and even allows devices hooked up via HDMI to communicate with one another for the purposes of detecting the correct video mode to display. If you have it available, use it. It also supports multichannel audio, but since I'm trying to keep the focus of this on video, we will save that discussion for later. Some newer DVD players use this connector, and most Blu-Ray devices and HD cable boxes use this connector.


Whew. I managed to make it all this way without using any of the video mode descriptors, but now I must explain them. The first two words I need to explain are interlaced and progressive.


A standard-definition TV picture as it is currently broadcast has 480 lines of visible resolution. Imagine 480 lines drawn horizontally across your TV screen, each one below the next. We'll call the line at the top of the screen "1" and the line at the bottom of the screen "480". Most television signals are 30 frames per second, so that's 30 pictures per second of TV, but the way that it is drawn is not 30 pictures in a row, one every 30th of a second. What happens is that all of the even lines of the first picture are drawn in the first 60th of a second (so that's line 2,4,6,8, etc. all the way to 480) and then all the odd lines of the first picture (1,3,5,7,...479) are drawn in the second 60th of a second. Then all the even lines of the second picture, then the odd lines of the second picture, and so on. This is called 480i. The '480' represents the 480 lines of resolution, and the 'i' lets us know that we're talking about interlaced video.


Alternately, there are video modes where all of the lines of the picture are drawn in a single pass. Your computer monitor does this, whether it is CRT or LCD or something else. The advantage of this is that contours drawn on the screen tend to look less flickery or less jagged. In interlaced video, a sharp line horizontally across the screen may seem to flicker up and down slightly, a diagonal line may look slightly jagged, and a vertical line might look ghostly. With the entire frame drawn at one time, these effects are reduced. Once you start watching DVDs in a progressive video mode, you might actually be able to read the credits instead of squinting at all of the blurry white letters on a black background! With DVD players that support progressive scan, you will have to use either the component video connectors or HDMI connection (if available), and then enable that feature in your DVD player's menu. This output will be 480p. 480 lines of resolution, and progressive scan output which means every line of video is drawn in a single pass. This, by the way, is still not HDTV. They give 480p a little bit of a break and call it 'EDTV'. The 'E' stands for 'Enhanced' - you can make up your own pharmaceutical joke here if you'd like.


If you're paying for HDTV, you're going to see that some of the HD channels are 720p, and some stations are 1080i. The nomenclature is the same - lines of resolution, and then an 'i' or 'p' to indicate whether it's interlaced or progressive scan. Of the two resolutions, 720p is better suited to fast-moving action like a football game, and 1080i is better suited to fancy-pants nature programming where the images don't change quickly and the camera pans slowly across the breathtaking landscape while Sigourney Weaver narrates.


Since the electronics industry can't leave well enough alone, they had to go and make the Blu-ray video format, which is best viewed on a TV capable of 1080p.


So, to categorize -


480i

Standard-definition TV, VHS, older game consoles.

Connects with coax, composite video, or sometimes S-Video.


480p

DVD players, Wii, GameCube, PlayStation 2 (but not all games), Xbox (all games)

Connects with component video cables.


720p

Sports HDTV, Some Blu-ray movies, Most PS3 and Xbox 360 games

Connects with component video cables or HDMI


1080i

Most HDTV

Connects with component video cables or HDMI


1080p

Blu-ray movies, some PS3 and Xbox 360 games

Connects with HDMI


Any higher resolution than 1080p, for now, assume that it will also connect with HDMI. Also, bear in mind that HDMI and component video can do lower resolutions, but they're overkill. Also, PS3 and Xbox 360 can display 1080i resolution, but most games are natively in 720p and would be rescaled slightly to display 1080i. While this is a long and involved post, I have not covered every possible scenario by a long shot. My intent is to cover the more common configurations.


And to recap - if you're not using HDMI, you might not be getting HDTV. If you don't know, have a look. If you can't tell what you're looking at, I hope you have enough information to ask the right questions now.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pinball Wizard? Perhaps not.

Well, I hadn't been blogging. But, I have been playing stuff. I played MadWorld long enough to show the wife a little of it, and got annoyed about not targeting enemies correctly again. I may have to play the first level over again so I get the tutorial.

I played a little bit of Link's Crossbow Training, because number 2 son says that that is "his Zelda game". Never mind the fact that he can't actually hold up the Wii Zapper or aim at the screen. He'd be just as happy with one of us playing Twilight Princess, but it has a circular scratch on it (again!) which has rendered the Gerudo desert unplayable.
What I really got sucked back into again is pinball. Not real pinball, mind you, but the simulation thereof. I have Pinball Hall of Fame:The Williams Collection for PS2 (I think I paid $10 for a new copy), and I have Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection for XBox (also purchased new, for less than $5). The game engines are identical, and the software was done by the same teams as far as I can tell. The visual fidelity is similar, but I am playing both games on the same old standard-def TV. I have seen both the Williams collection and the Gottlieb collection for Wii, but I haven't bothered since I'm concerned about the viability of using motion controls to nudge the table.

That brings me to my annoyance with the XBox version. Despite how similar the two games are, I am completely unable to nudge the table on the Gottlieb Collection without immediately getting a giant TILT displayed on the screen. I have played other games for XBox and seem to be able to use the left analog stick properly there (Ninja Gaiden comes to mind), and I have no problem with the nudge on the Williams collection, also done on the left analog.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a lefty, and I have been playing these games with a Pelican wired controller for XBox, and a Logitech cordless PS2 controller.

So, what gives? Is it the game, the cheap controller, or the guy holding the controller?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Spyborgs followup, and more MvC3!

This morning, #1 son got as far as board 3-4 of Spyborgs without having to adjust the difficulty downward - he started on "Casual". (Casual is one easier than the middle difficulty, 2 out of 5 if you want to look at it that way.) I played some co-op with him on the same difficulty, and it wasn't too bad. I wish the camera would come into the gameplay a little closer during regular melee combat, so I could see when I need to block and when I need to just get away, but when you're playing co-op and you need to scout the screen for invisible objects all the time, you need the camera pulled back for that. I still feel like we're getting our $4.99 worth.

I saw that no one had bothered making a FAQ for it on Gamefaqs.com. Even though there are lots of unlockables and achievements in the game, the game seems to spell out what they are, so maybe there's no reason to type up a FAQ.

In Marvel vs Capcom news, Tron Bonne (MegaMan series) and X23 (XMen comics) were announced last week as playable characters for MvC3. Wesker (Resident Evil series)



and Spiderman ( straight out of Stan Lee's brain)



were announced this weekend at the Tokyo Game Show. Spiderman is no surprise whatsoever, as he has been in all of the vs. games that they can cram him into. Tron Bonne was in MvC2, so also not much of a shocker. X23 appears to play similarly to Wolverine (What would you expect from the female clone of Wolverine?), but she is a lot better looking than grumpy old Logan. Wesker is figuring more and more prominently as the Resident Evil series goes on, so I can understand Capcom wanting him there - you can see from the video that he's quite the rushdown character.

OK, gotta go play more Spyborgs.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Customer Service, 3rd Party.

So I went on an adventure this afternoon - I had to drive #1 son to a doctor's appointment. It was in a part of the county that I don't normally go to, and on the way there #1 son had seen a Gamestop on the way out. Despite a dissenting vote for Burger King, we stopped at that Gamestop on the way back, after the appointment. It was a fairly busy store, mostly families, and the employees didn't seem to notice us. They had a copy of Killer 7 for Gamecube - a game that I had been looking for ever since I played No More Heroes. It was fairly cheap, $8.99. I couldn't bring myself to get it. There is no multiplayer, it's over-the-top violent, it acts sort of like a rail shooter, the plot is bizarre, and it's the sort of game that even if I explained to you why it's so good you might not believe me because half the things I would try to explain don't make any sense.

My original plan, which I reverted to, was to pick up a copy of Spyborgs from Best Buy. Also a Capcom game, but developed by a totally different team - this game had two major advantages. One, all the game reviews said that it was much better played by two people and I expect that I will be able to play this with #1 son. Two, the game is $4.99. New. The last time I was there there were only two copies that I could see. Today I just grabbed a copy and stuffed it under my arm without looking to see if the other one had sold or not.

#1 son played the Kraven the Hunter level on Spiderman:Shattered Dimensions and did just fine, despite only a little experience with a regular XBox controller and no XBox 360 experience. #1 son liked how Spiderman moved and reacted to the controls - the only thing that annoyed me when I watched him was that the camera wasn't always that smart. I was trying to play Sin & Punishment on the Wii kiosk, but I had to rejigger the controls once and then I was distracted by a couple of employees trying to help a customer with Wii accessories. I was getting a weird vibe from them (the employees) and had to go see what they were trying to do to their captive customer. I jumped in and (I think) did a better job of answering his questions - I also had to remind him that Nintendo's not a big fan of third party power supplies when you're having to deal with them on a warranty issue. What would have been great for him to be able to get was the Migration Kit, but Nintendo doesn't sell them outside Japan and they have a composite video cable in that pack instead of a component video cable.

He suggested that I should work there since I knew more than the employees - I reminded him that the main function of Best Buy employees was to sell extended warranties, and that most of them didn't have/play Wii, so they wouldn't be as familiar. Just to give him the whole SuperMonkeyCube experience, I threw out the Rubik's cube for a quick solve - I don't ever know if that confirms that I'm a nutcase or it confirms that I'm not a nutcase.

After we got home, #1 son finished the first section of Spyborgs while I made pizza, and it wasn't horrible. (The game. No, the pizza wasn't horrible either. Pepperoni, Olive and Broccoli, since you asked.) So, I'm pretty sure I'm going to get my five bucks worth. I'm looking forward to co-op.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cubing in a strange place

So, I escaped my local orbit over the weekend and slept in a different city Friday night. That city was Daytona Beach Shores, just south of what most people understand to be Daytona Beach.

I had not been to Daytona for a while, and it was a little sad not to see some of the buildings that I had seen there in previous trips to the city over the last 30 years or so. There are only two arcades left on the old part of the boardwalk - video game arcades, I mean. I do not refer to those slot-machine-for-dinner-coupon gambling establishments as an 'arcade', even though that word is used for that other purpose*. No, I mean Tetris, Ghost Squad, the not-so-new but still awesome Terminator Salvation light gun game, Skee-Ball, sit-down driving games, and a pinball machine or five. I was hoping to show Bubba a Pac-Man machine in the wild, but both arcades had a non-functioning Ms. Pac-Man machine and no other Pac-related games. It's cool that they put in a Ferris Wheel and a G0-Kart track, but all of the mini-golf has been relegated to the other side of the road and they are all required to have a large volcano replica, a crashed airplane replica, and live alligators (not replicas).

It was nice that Pizza King was still there - they make a great pizza with a crust reminiscent of fresh-baked French bread. They have a giant Hobart mixer there in the kitchen that's about the size of a residential refrigerator. Another thing that was somewhat the same? Parking. If you have a hotel right on Daytona Beach, you may not notice, because you have hotel parking - but if you need to go anywhere farther than you can walk, you quickly notice that you can't park anywhere worthwhile without paying for it until 9PM. We luckily found a space that allowed 30 minute parking from 9AM to 9PM at about 8:30. At the same time we pulled in, a rather rowdy group pulled in the space in front of us - the three of them had loudly congratulated each other and my wife on their excellent parking coup. One of them commented on my cube, and I did a quick solve for them while the wife and the children snuck away from the rowdiness undetected. I had forgotten how amazed the slightly inebriated can be with a cube demo. One uneasy high five later, I ran to catch up to the family already making a beeline for Pizza King.

After the evening pizza adventure and subsequent disappointing hunt for a Pac-Man machine, we watched a little beach volleyball and some guy with a bunch of snakes, three lizards, and the fattest skunk I have ever met. He was making some money by getting people to pay $10 for a picture with one of the animals. I didn't see anybody with the skunk - the albino Burmese python seemed to be the favorite, perfect for teenage girls to dare each other into a frenzy with.

The next day, my cube and I were on the beach for about 8 hours - and I only dropped the cube in the sand once. I have cubed at the beach before - usually I just have it in my hand while I'm walking, but if somebody asks me about it I'm happy to give a quick demonstration. At Daytona Beach, my cube was largely inconsequential other than as a distraction for me, and that was quite OK. Dropping the cube in the sand was not so OK. The difference was in the sand. Here at home, the sand is very coarse. If I drop a cube into the sand, it's actually difficult for a piece of sand to get in the cube because the grain size is so large. At Daytona, the sand is very small and enough stuck to the cube to worm its way inside rather quickly. Even though my cube got a thorough cleaning when I got home and a fresh application of silicone lubricant, it still has the tell-tale whooshing sound of plastic with grooves in it.

*If I am ever elected to a public office that allows it, I will mandate that the use of the word 'arcade' in signage for a public business require at least one working Pac-Man machine on the premises.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thank goodness school is back in...

#1 son just finished Capcom's "Okami" (Wii version). I am proud of him for finishing it, because the only things that he wanted help from me on were the timed races. He gets a little freaked out on missions where you are timed, so it's understandable that he can't really do them. It's easier to play a race or two for him and let him take over again when he's ready. We might have looked up a puzzle or two, but I am impressed that after showing him a little bit of technique on one of the first bosses he did every subsequent boss battle himself.

"Okami" is an adventure game like the Legend of Zelda series games, but the game has more of an emphasis on character interaction for completing missions, and has an art style that makes it appear as an animated Japanese watercolor painting. Another major difference between "Okami" and the Zelda game for Wii "Twilight Princess" is that when you aim the Wiimote at the screen in "Okami", it's only to use the game's magic system. The Celestial Brush, when activated, is how the wolf god Ameratsu interacts with her surroundings. You pull the B trigger on the Wiimote, time stops in the game, and you draw various symbols on the screen to achieve various results. Lighting fires, blooming flowers, making the wind blow, and delivering quick slashes to enemies are all done in the magic system. The other fighting moves are done with buttons and shaking In "Twilight Princess", the slingshot, boomerang, and bow and arrow are all aimed on-screen with the remote in real time during battles. It's great for someone like me with lots of game experience, but it's not so great for a 9-year-old that gets anxious when he's trying to aim at something that's shooting back.

Finishing "Okami", I think counts for more than finishing one of the LEGO games - there aren't too many boss battles in the LEGO games that can even compare.

When I asked him if he wanted to finish some other game now that he finished "Okami", he said that he wanted to play "Okami" again so he could find all of the stray beads in the game. Luckily, this will be a good bargaining tool to get him to finish his homework.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A little run-in with the locals...

I had to yell at an apparently intoxicated or otherwise mentally impaired woman today because she had to get in my face and tell me that my sweet Border Lab was actually a Pit Bull and if it got off the leash or bit her or her dog that she would sue me. If she was that concerned, she should have stayed on the other side of the street where she was. Oddly enough, she did not deny that she was intoxicated when I asked her. I guess 12:45 isn't too early to drink on a Friday.

I had just come back from and errand and lunch with #2 Son and Suki the Wonder Dog. There is a woman with a dog in my field of vision, something I am used to looking for with a dog in tow. I see her walking on the sidewalk on the other side of the street as I am getting out of the car. She is shorter than me, but a little taller than my wife. She is normal weight, which is not so normal these days. She is older than me, perhaps she is in her late 40s or early 50s. She has fairish skin with spots - she looks like she has spent her fair share of time outside, but she does not seem to tan. She is wearing a shirt that goes to her elbows, some random or tie-dye pattern, and maybe some sort of dark colored Capri pants or cargo shorts that go to her knees. Her dog is small, black and white. The dog's ears look like the Batman cowl ears from the 70's costume. Perhaps it is a French Bulldog, I cannot be certain until I spend more time with Google Image Search.

Realizing that I had not taken the recycling out, I grab the bins while I still have dog leash in my hand. Suki sniffs around the yard while I take her back and forth from the side of the house to the road. As I get the second bin to the front, I see the woman crossing the road, dog leading. So far, this is normal dog owner behavior, and I expect people to ask me about Suki because she's a little bit small for a Lab, and her face is a slightly different shape.

"What kind of dog is that?"

"A Border Lab."

"A what?"

"A Border Lab." I say it slower because I worry that I'm not enunciating.

"A what?"

"Labrador. A Border..."

"That's a pit bull. You're a liar." Until the moment that she calls me a liar, I was assuming that I was having a normal conversation with a sane person.

The conversation gets complicated at that point, because we're talking over each other a little. She continues to assert that I am a liar, and that if that dog gets off the leash or bites her that she will sue me. I ask her if she is intoxicated, and if I might have to call for a D&D (drunk and disorderly). She suggests to me that she might call her lawyer. Judging from her behavior, it seems plausible that she both has a lawyer and has his number memorized. At some point, her belligerence puts her face in the proximity of mine, and I mentally check the way that she is standing against the way that I am standing. I am worried that she will decide to kick me in the crotch. I am worried that I will not show proper restraint. Since yelling may still be covered by the First Amendment I opt for standing to my full height in front of her and saying:

"GET. OFF. MY. LAWN."

She complies, punctuated with a disgusted "Fine". She mutters something else about a lawyer, and yells back to me to ask if I thought she was stupid.

"No, I think you're intoxicated."

Before she is out of visual range, but well past earshot, I catch one of the other neighbors out walking his dog, an old retired guy. I ask him if he had seen that woman walking that dog before, and he said that he had not, and he mentioned that she was muttering to herself the whole time about "Doesn't he know that thing is dangerous?"

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The radical fetishization of game cases.

On my usual Friday trip to Wal-Mart, I added a CD organizer thingy to my shopping list - not like the big Rubbermaid photo&CD organizer totes that I have been getting, but one that just has little sleeves in it for the discs. I took 2-1/2 bins of PS2 games and condensed them down to something the size of a large hardback book, with 1/3 of a bin now being taken up only by what game manuals came out of that stash. A success overall, as it now allows me easier access to a lot of games that I don't always go digging through the bins for - and I even got so crazy as to alphabetize them. I had a couple of games that I couldn't bear to take out of the cases - no, they weren't Street Figher Alpha Anthology or Capcom Fighting Evolution - actually they are R-Type Final and Mister Mosquito. Too wacky to mess with, I suppose. I was surprised by a few things - I forgot that Death by Degrees had a demo disk for Tekken 5 in it, I forgot that Ribbit King had a second disk of bizarre movies on it, and I forgot that Barbarian was made by Titus, the same people that made that awesome Xena:The Warrior Princess fighting game for N64. I have no idea what has kept me hanging on to plastic cases all this time, but I think that part of it is how fragile the first era of CD's were.

At some other point on Friday, I wandered into out local Gamestop with the kids in tow. #1 son and I looked around in the Wii games, and we were looking at Sega Superstars Tennis as a light and fun way to break up our overly serious Okami adventure. I was a little annoyed with the employee on duty - it was a middle-aged woman. I don't mean to be ageist or sexist, my annoyance stemmed from the fact that she gave off no 'gamer' vibe at all. As a matter of fact, that particular store has had, in the past, quite a number of female employees that were gamers - and even one female general manager that was rather knowledgeable about intricate details of Final Fantasy that were even a little scary (in a good way). In general, I have found female employees a little easier to deal with largely because they tend to be a little more professional. Also, you would think that a store staffed with female gamers would be sure to attract the attention of the predominantly male gaming audience and be a little less off-putting to moms of gamers when they have to make a trip there to ask an employee something about a game. I'm sure that Gamestop's rigid rules and procedures will continue to produce their desired employee churn and anybody good they ever have will leave as usual. We bought nothing and left - we may consider the tennis game later, but it's not going anywhere.

By the time I have all of the games out of their plastic cases, I was starting to think that just putting them all in the recycle bin was the wrong move - so I called Gamestop to see if they wanted them. I got Middle-Aged-Non-Gamer-Woman on the phone, as I had suspected that I would. I pleaded my case for not throwing out cases, and suggested that they could make good use of them. She plainly stated that she got all of her game cases from corporate.

After a subsequent phone call, I think that one of the local Play-N-Trade stores has warmed to my idea. Where's the sense in putting game cases out for recycling when they could just be re-used directly without all that processing?

Also, Cherry Crush is awesome, and so are Ketchup flavored Pringles. I would advise, however, having them separately.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Legend of Zelda - The Skyward Sword Official Trailer

While I am not always in favor of realism in games, I am looking forward to the fact that the new Legend of Zelda game uses the Wii Motion Plus to improve its swordplay (and a couple of other things).

The swordplay in The Legend of Zelda:Twilight Princess was fun, and that game did a good job of doing a lot of different sword and shield moves with the motion controls. The slingshot and bow and arrow seemed like much more useful weapons because you could point the Wiimote directly on the screen to aim them. So, it would seem that a natural extension of that would be to make the swordplay more direct.



From the official trailer, we see that some enemies are specifically tailored to be defeated by sword attacks at a specific angle. Also, we see the slingshot, bow and arrow, some awesome bomb bowling, a whip - new to the big versions but previously used in the DS game The Legend of Zelda:Spirit Tracks. Most crazy of all is the new remote control flying scarab beetle - check Link poised to fire it up at 1:06 in the video. My older son made some sort of squealy noise when he saw that for the first time.

The only things that I might not be looking forward to
are:

  1. The boomerang, and
  2. playing lefty.
Depending on how they implement the boomerang, it may be fine or I may be throwing it backwards all the time, and I presume that partly because of being a lefty. Being a lefty will affect the swordplay as well. Even though Link has been a lefty for a long time, they changed it for Twilight Princess on Wii because they were worried about how it would feel to be swinging the Wiimote with your right hand and seeing the on-screen character swing the sword with his left hand. However, since the controls are indirect and not direct, I didn't find a problem the other way around. It remains to be seen whether it will screw me up on direct controls. I will definitely be looking to play this at a store kiosk before I buy it, as I doubt Nintendo will be giving people a choice between lefty and righty in the options menu. It's not like it's a bowling game, for crying out loud.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spiderman hasn't shown up yet on the confirmed characters list for Marvel vs Capcom 3. I was only capable of expressing how I felt with action figures.





































Friday, July 23, 2010

New Marvel vs Capcom 3 characters announced at ComicCon

So I wake up Thursay morning, blearily stare at my computer screen, and see that they have announced more characters for MvC3!











Chun-Li is no surprise, as I had surmised before that she had been in too many of the other crossover games to not be present in this one.


Doctor Doom, the main enemy of the Fantastic Four, wasn't much of a surprise either since he was a interesting character to use in MvC2.


Super Skrull was not that much of a surprise, but only because I had heard talk of his inclusion when the original silhouette was posted on the MvC3 official page. It makes it easy to include the Fantastic Four, which were previously difficult to use because of licensing deals, because Super Skrull has all the same powers as the members of the Fantastic Four.


Trish is a little bit of a surprise to me, but a welcome helping of fan service in a cute leather outfit indeed. It would be even more awesome to have a Dante/Trish/Lady team, but I'm guessing that's overkill.












Trish's outfit in MvC3 looks more like the Devil May Cry 1 and 2 model than the one she's wearing in DMC4. That's fine by me, as I really learned to appreciate Trish more when I unlocked her as a playable character in DMC2. For some reason, I expected Capcom to take the macho route and include Vergil or Nero instead of Trish.



Included in the first video above - the word "Viewtiful" (Look after Doctor Doom lands that 36-hit combo - around 0:26). Decide amongst yourselves what the implications are. Not included in the MvC3 video above but otherwise announced - Thor and Ameratsu. There are some screenshots out there. I'm excited for the new characters, although I'd really like to see some footage of one of the larger characters against Ameratsu, just because I suspect that a lot of their standing regular attacks will just whiff over her fluffy white head and Ameratsu will be well suited to giving the big guys the rushdown and biting their kneecaps off.


In anticipation of all of the fighting game goodness to come, and also because I don't have SFIV, I dug through my box of fighting games and threw Tekken Tag Tournament, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, Tekken 5 and Arcana Heart in the PS2 for a few minutes each last night. Tekken Tag looked a little dated, as the character models look a bit better in Tekken 5. Tekken 5 annoyed me only because I never finished that stupid "Devil Within" mode - I liked Tekken Force Mode in Tekken 3 and 4 so much better because they were straight-up brawlers that left the moveset of the Tekken characters intact. "Devil Within" is a different control scheme, and full of jumping puzzles. Also, there is a limit to how many times I will re-fight True Ogre before it starts feeling pointless. Neo Geo Battle Coliseum felt floaty and "off" a little. I keep trying to play SNK fighters because there are legions of dedicated KOF fans that swear by those games, but something never feels right. I even picked up a couple of the 3D King of the Fighters games, which I liked a little bit more, but I never really connected to. It's sad that I would rather play a deeply broken Mortal Kombat game with good characters than something with more critical acclaim that I just can't connect with.


Arcana Heart perked me right up after all of that, though. While it's slow compared to a lot of the other games and the arenas are large, the graphics are excellent for a PS2 game, and the fighting mechanics feel more solid than the SNK fighters. The idea of having separate sets of super moves and normal moves is interesting, it gives people a chance to build a character to their play style a little more. It only has three normal attack buttons and one special attack button - maybe it's the perfect game to get me warmed up for Marvel vs Capcom 3.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

So what does "Mature" mean again?

This weekend is a buy 2 get one on used games at Gamestop. Saturday's purchases were:

MadWorld for Wii
Wall-E for Wii
Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights for Gamecube (I always tell #1 son that if we can get a game for PS2 or Gamecube to get the Gamecube version.)

Two for the kids, one for me. At first, we were going to get No More Heroes 2 instead of Wall-E, but I felt like that No More Heroes 2 would be around for a while. My reasoning for getting MadWorld was that if I really want to experience what the Wii has to offer hardcore gamers, I should pick it up before it disappeared. Since No More Heroes 2 is a more recent release I wasn't worried about it going away any time soon. Also, I thought it was somewhat unfair to double up on UltraVoilence, since I'm not the only one that plays Wii in our house by a long shot. I had played the demo of the Wall-E game for PC, and it wasn't horrible, so I figured it was worth a try. It took us a while to decide what to get, and it took a little longer because #2 son kept bringing me cases for PSP games. "Bub, we don't have PSP. Leave 'em on the shelf". I would also like to thank Chrisitan at our local Gamestop for being a good sport while I did Rubik's cube demos in line at the store.

Eventually, we got home to play stuff. While it doesn't look as good as the PC version, the Wii version of Wall-E seems to play OK but we didn't delve very far into it. The controls showed a surprising amount of depth, even going so far as using the Wiimote to look around. As soon as we got home, #1 son fired up my Gamecube and got right to work on the Scooby-Doo game, and noticed that it was full of jumping and part-collecting. It also has a lot of well-arranged incidental music from the cartoons in it, so it definitely gave off the Scooby vibe. #2 son sensed the Scooby vibe and went in to watch him play, so I switched out discs and got started with MadWorld.


I have always been a big fan of brawlers, I think my favorite one in the arcades was The Combatribes, although I did play both Streets of Rage and several of the Final Fight games on the 16-bit consoles. I also played Double Dragon on a green screened Compaq portable at some point in the 80's, and I also remember getting my butt kicked by some stupid game on NES or SNES called "BattleToads". Stupid jetbike levels killed me every time. But, I digress.

The conceit of MadWorld is that you're an entrant in a city-wide televised combat spree called "DeathWatch". They play it up like it's a highly rated TV show and a terrorist plot all at the same time, especially since the island that the game takes place on had all of its bridges demolished all at the same time, right before the show starts. It implies that some big players are involved behind the scenes - it also implies that our protagonist might just be more than he appears.

Just because a game is rated for mature audiences is no guarantee that what you are experiencing is mature subject matter, or intellectually mature, or has mature gameplay. This is the most profanity laden and unapologetically violent game that I have played, but I hear that House of the Dead:Overkill (another game I haven't gotten to yet) actually has more profanity. Even Resident Evil 4 hides some of the decapitations with blurry cameras and slight cutaways, but Madworld includes a couple kinds of impalements, bisections, fire, getting run down by trains, getting thrown into saw blades, and being crushed with a two-ton metal ball - and that's just in the first level. Now while this sounds a bit gruesome, bear in mind that the entire world is rendered in a graphic novel styled black and white, full of deep shadows and punctuated with the occasional red and yellow. It is reminiscent of Frank Miller - perhaps the target audience for the game is people who enjoyed Sin City? Level two has a game called Man-Darts partway through, and while I can only explain it by saying that it involves a big baseball bat and a thirty foot high dartboard that you whack enemies into headfirst, it's a lot more fun than it might sound even though I had to fight the camera more than my opponents.

The voice actors that play the two play-by-play announcers in MadWorld are John Dimaggio, voice of my second favorite American English speaking robot, and Greg Proops, voice of my favorite non-alien speaking Podrace announcer.* In the first few minutes of the game alone, the two announcers drop F-bombs like it was February 1945 over Dresden. They start repeating jokes pretty early on, so you may just turn them down as soon as you're tired of them. I was very pleased to see that the announcers had their own volume slider. The enemies swear at you all the time too, so don't think turning down the announcers will help. After you turn down the announcers and the enemies, you will notice that the game's music is a flavor of hip-hop that includes at least a third as much swearing as the announcers. At this point, I was hoping for a button in the options that said "Instrumental & SFX Only". The violence I am used to but it probably doesn't annoy me because it's ridiculously over-the-top. The constant barrage of profanity annoys me, though. I'd like to be able to play the game without getting everyone within earshot annoyed. The music part of the music is well done, and the sound effects are meaty and solid.

It was also nice to hear that the voice of our protagonist Jack is played by the same actor that played protagonist Brad Hawk in Namco's Urban Reign, Steven Blum. The opening narration for Urban Reign was a standout piece of the game, and he gave you the inspiration to kick butt just from his voice alone. He serves a similar purpose here, to let you know that Jack is not a dude to be messed with.

My biggest issue with the game is that while it has many similarities to No More Heroes with even more swearing and the swordplay and the beatings and the ranking system and the on-screen controller motions for finishing moves, it misses the mark on the controls a little. It's difficult to stay locked on to the bosses and mini-bosses, and when you're not using the lock-on feature, the game often whiffs a punch into the empty space right next to an enemy if it thinks you're actually trying to get some other farther away enemy that's at a different angle to you. If your character is such a bad motor scooter, how could he mess that up? After having played games like Rygar and Devil May Cry and God of War that get that right a lot more of the time, it's sad to see a good developer miss the mark on that.

I hope all you people out there playing Heavy Rain appreciate what you got - that may actually be a "Mature" game. For that matter, Shadow of the Colossus and Sly 3 show more emotional maturity than MadWorld does. Heavy Rain may have a more choose-your-own-adventure game interface, and isn't as much of an action game. From a gameplay standpoint, MadWorld has a lot of things that I like in it, but a lot of the game's overall tone looks like it was just there for shock value and not because it fit with the game's story.

Maybe what I really want is a cartoony Devil May Cry game on Wii, rendered like Under The Skin or Viewtiful Joe. Enemies explode into red orbs (Devil May Cry's currency) upon defeat. Nero, Lady, Vergil, Trish, Leon Kennedy, and a few others show up as drop-in-drop-out team mates. Lots of action, some difficult puzzles that don't require jumping, minimal swearing, music that you need a subwoofer for, and some extra multiplayer modes. Dante runs an "agency", so why not let him do some detective work? Of course, if Capcom made anything like that they would be berated for making "LEGO Batman meets Carmen Sandiego".




* John Dimaggio's Bender is my second favorite American English speaking robot because he loses out to Robby the Robot from "Forbidden Planet" - nothing against John DiMaggio, Robby has a cooler hardware configuration. Also I had to specify American English because Anthony Daniels just slays both of those guys, and R2-D2 doesn't even speak English. As far as Greg Proops (the English speaking half of the podrace announcer) goes, it's just sad that he's at the top of such a very short list.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An overview of Sly Cooper...

...from someone who just got around to playing it.

Despite numerous attempts to stop me, I played through all of Sony developer Sucker Punch's three Sly Cooper games from Memorial Day to the 4th of July. I only played through the main game, I didn't complete any of the Master Thief challenges. I'm sure I could have completed them sooner, but I played some Street Fighter 3:Third Strike and a few other Capcom fighting games inbetween sessions, just to break it up a little.

I have played all of the PS2 Ratchet and Clank games (that's not true - I didn't play any of the PSP ones that got ported to PS2), and had played the first Jak & Daxter, so I felt like I had missed out by not having played the Sly Cooper games at all. Given the opportunity to pick them up cheap, I got all three of them - although in retrospect I should have picked up new copies of all three. Sly 3 I picked up from Gamestop as a used copy, and since the only thing I got was the disk for $10, I missed out a little. ( More on that later.)

The first Sly Cooper game comes off like Nintendo's early Mario games. Levels have a beginning and an end, and you're supposed to 1) go quick, 2) don't get hurt at all, and 3) get all the stuff. Similar to Mario, some boards allow you to go at your own pace, and some boards put time pressure on you. There's at least one board in every group of levels that has non-platformer gameplay, like one where you pilot an undersea sub and shoot crabs trying to take treasure chests. The controls for that are identical to the old school Robotron 2084 but these days that's referred to as a "twin stick shooter" since it seems like most of the people that Microsoft and Sony market to these days weren't alive in 1982 when that game came out. Some of the other non-platforming boards include racing levels and turret gun levels. Unlike the Ratchet and Clank's turret levels, where the object is to shoot down a lot of enemies, the Sly Cooper turret levels involve providing cover fire for a teammate so that they can proceed through a level. The only thing that I found odd about the game was that there was one powerup that was inaccesible until you had completed the main game, and it made the powerup completely pointless because it can't effectively be used in completing the Master Theif missions.

The second Sly Cooper game, Band of Theives, takes place in a series of cities around the world. While many of the missions take you into building interiors that are otherwise inaccessible, a fair portion of each city's missions are in the city itself. I liked that the cities had some purpose instead of being a glorified level select screen. The game added a currency system, stealing treasures and returning them to the safe house in a limited amount of time, added pickpocketing as both a side way to make money and a feature of getting through some of the levels, and purchaseable powerups. Sly's teammates Bentley and Murray get more of their own missions now, where you're controlling them directly. The conceit of the driving missions in Sly 1 was that Murray was driving - when Murray actually gets out of the car, it's already a cutscene by then. Now you get to use the might of "The Murray" directly to pound foes too tough for Sly, and Bentley goes through small spaces that Sly can't get into so we can hack the enemies' computers. Bentley also has very effective sleep darts and bombs. The game is a lot more fun than the first one for me because the locations seem a little more "real" - I enjoy a game that has a sense of place. It's nice to get to know where you're going after a while. In the name of variety, this game also has some turret missions but they're more like the Ratchet and Clank ones this time, and Bentley's hacking games play a little like old-school Omega Race. Other non-traditional levels include attacking foes using an RC chopper or an RC car. The best thing was having a regular health bar instead of the 'one hit and you're out' system from the first game.


By the time the third game (Honor Among Theives) rolls around, Sucker Punch has figured a few things out. None of the loot that you find has any impact on the game other than how much money you have, so making you go through the extra step of cashing it in was unneccesary. Now, loot instantly adds to your currency total. All of the powerups become purchaseable. The missions are a little more streamlined, but not as much as Sly 1. The endless looking around for clue bottles has gone, though. (I kinda missed them.) On the other hand, some new things got thrown in for reasons I can't fathom. Four more playable characters, inclusion of 3D in some levels, and a rather involved pirate boat combat simulator. I did like the storyline of 3, but I didn't like switching to characters with rather different control schemes. At the risk of it being a little spoilerish, Carmelita's controls were the ones that really bugged me. The plane levels were fun - the demo disk for Sly 3 included a version of one of the aerial battles - although I had to pass on the 3D version of the last dogfight since it's harder to tell a red plane from a black plane with anaglyph glasses on. In general, I used the 3D glasses that I had laying around the house for the platforming levels, and passed on it for the boss battles. Had I purchased a new copy of Sly 3, perhaps I would have the exact 3D glasses that I needed, but the ones I had were close enough. I would have liked some sort of calibration screen for the 3D, or a displayable test pattern so I could check that the 3D was set up correctly without having to do it in the middle of a level while perched on a spire someplace. One new thing that they added that was somewhat fun was some cutscenes had a dialogue tree to do - I wouldn't want them to make a whole game of it, it was just fun when they threw it in a few times.

Those of you that have still missed out on these games and have a PS3 can take advantage of the The Sly Collection coming out. I'm sure that it will be easy to render at higher resolution, but I wonder if they're going to keep the 3D the same.

And, for the record, I liked the voice actress for Carmelita Fox in the second game (Alesia Glidewell) the best. And that was without realizing that she plays the protagonist Chell in Valve's Portal!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Marvel Vs Capcom 3

I would have posted this sooner, but between playing the Sly Cooper games and my older son's discovery of websites like ninjakiwi.com, I haven't been on the computer as much. I will talk about my impressions of the Sly games pretty soon.


Marvel vs Capcom 3 has been announced, and they've been showing some gameplay footage already.










Overall, I seem to like it. I'm glad that they listened to the fans and included Dante from 'Devil May Cry', Capcom's stylish action series. I'm glad that they managed to keep the 3-on-3 format from 'Marvel vs Capcom 2'. I was surprised to see Marvel's 'Merc with a Mouth' Deadpool included at first, but I was reminded by the guys at the comic book store that everything seems to get Deadpool added to it these days.


There are a few camps of haters -


"OMG BlazBlue is so much better why don't they make it 2D" I do realize that other companies are still making sprite-based fighters, and my hat is off to companies that are still making that work. Capcom has a variety of series going on now besides the Street Fighter games, most (all?) of which are done with 3D modeled characters because the game environments are 3D. The skill set of their employees and the design of their development tools probably totally slanted towards 3D. We've already heard this complaint directed towards Street Fighter IV, and I have to say that Street Fighter IV's use of a moving camera during special attacks has added a measure of excitement to matches that you can't get from a 2D fighter. And when I say that you can't get it from a 2D fighter, I mean that if you do move the camera around in a 2D fighter, it's like you're watching cardboard cutouts fight. I realize that it's not substantive and doesn't affect the actual fighting mechanics, but I like it. Capcom's old tendency to re-use sprites between games had gotten them in a bad place with Street Fighter fans, especially by the time 'Capcom vs SNK 2' made it to consoles in 2001. There were brand-new SNK characters right next to sprites of Darkstalkers' Morrigan that they hadn't updated since 1994, and it looked terrible. I hope that their use of 3D character models helps them keep up graphically without looking dated.


"I hate this cartoony looking junk." I can think of at least two significant reasons to do a cartoony art style. Marvel characters are from the comics after all, but that's not why. With characters from both comics and a multitude of games, each with its own art style, it's probably more visually consistent to make everybody look more like they just stepped out of a comic book. That way, the game has a unifying visual style that people will associate with the game. Also, if you're going to have six characters on the screen, I presume that the simpler rendering style helps keep the framerate consistently high.



"Why did they simplify the controls? Street Fighter is supposed to be six buttons." I hate to tell you that MvC2 had somewhat simplified controls. While it was still six buttons, the MvC2 layout has two buttons specifically assigned to tagging out to your two partners. The punch buttons and kick buttons were reduced to two each. Not being able to simply have three different speeds of projectile attacks seemed to be the most annoying feature of this change to me. According to the preliminary information, the buttons are three attacks and one exchange button, similar to Tatsunoko vs Capcom. Having played TvC, and being satisfied with how the controls work, I have to say that I like this better than MvC2's controls in this regard. The other major reason to simplify the controls is to help maintain a broader audience.



For years, fighting games had relatively simple controls until Street Fighter. While people were largely unaware of the original Street Fighter, these special moves carried over to the very popular Street Fighter II. These, in turn, influenced Mortal Kombat and other some games in the genre, but not all of them. For whatever reason, the Street Fighter Alpha series started more and different controller techniques, taking its lead from the last Street Fighter II game, Super Street Fighter II Turbo. The Street Fighter Alpha included Alpha counters and multi-level Super moves, and Street Fighter Alpha 2 included the Variable Combo attack. As more and different kinds of special attacks were added to the game, it became more of a barrier to entry for new players. By the time Capcom finally made Street Fighter 3 (1997) and added the Parry system, it was no longer enough to know all of your character's moves. To be proficient at Street Fighter 3, you had to know the precise hit timing of all of your opponent's moves. This was made worse by Street Fighter 3 only having a home version on the Dreamcast for the first few years and was not released to the more widely popular home systems (PS2, Xbox) until 2004. Another setback was removal of a lot of fan favorites from Street Fighter II and too many new characters. This narrowing of focus made Street Fighter 3:Third Strike a technically great game, but not played by a wide audience, and not easy to get into for new players. Capcom had explicitly stated during development of Street Fighter 4 that they wanted to bring their fighting games back to a wider audience, and they have done a great job with that – and it's even more important in a game like Marvel vs Capcom 3, because they need to bring in new Marvel fans into the fold and make it easy to get into the game.



I'm sure that some of you can come up with more objections, and feel free to comment away – I'm going to get on with the roster analysis, though.


The characters that have already been announced are: (Game Series in parenthesis)



  • Chris Redfield (Resident Evil)

  • Dante (Devil May Cry)

  • Felicia (Darkstalkers)

  • Morrigan (Darkstalkers)

  • Ryu (Street Fighter)

And on the Marvel side:



  • Captain America

  • Deadpool

  • Dormammu (villan from Dr. Strange)

  • Hulk

  • Iron Man

  • Wolverine

Based on the rosters of past games, there are some reasonable assumptions, and some not-so-reasonable assumptions.


Looking at "Marvel vs Capcom" and "Marvel vs Capcom 2" only, a presumption might be that anyone that was in both of the other games would be in this one. If that turns out to be true, then we could expect to see Gambit, Spiderman, War Machine, and Venom on the Marvel side - although Gambit's somewhat of a longshot (and personally I'd rather see Longshot although I have no idea how you could implement his powers in a fighting game). On the Capcom side, that would put Captain Commando, Chun-Li, Jin, Mega Man, Roll, Strider Hiryu, and Zangief in the lineup. Even though he was sort of the Capcom mascot, since Captain Commando has a bunch of other teammates to model, I'm going to say unlikely to him. Chun-Li and Zangief are already modeled in SF4 (and Chun-Li has also been modeled in TvC) so they would be easy enough to do. Mega Man seems likely, but I'm going to say maybe not Roll since I'm hoping they have enough sense to keep super-short characters out this time. Jin and Strider Hiryu have not been featured in any modern games, so they may be out too.



Looking deeper into the previous Capcom superhero fighting games (X-Men: Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men vs Street Fighter, and Marvel vs Street Fighter), a few more characters may get considered. Blackheart has been in three previous games , although perhaps he's not relevant as a bad guy any more. The same thing could be said for Omega Red. Juggernaut has been in a few times before, is a fun character to use, and still manages to be relevant in the comic books. I would say that he's got a good chance to make the cut unless there's some storyline related reason for him not to be there. Shuma-Gorath has made some previous appearances but is another Dr. Strange villan. (He looks like an octopus with a giant eyeball as a head.) Unless they're willing to put Dr. Strange in, I think Dormammu's appearance will keep Shuma-Gorath out. If they go for more X-Men involvement, Cyclops, Magneto, and Storm, could end up in the game. On the Capcom side, Akuma, Cammy, Charlie, Dhalsim, Ken, and M. Bison have all been in their fair share of the crossover games. Should they go in again, or is it time to let some more new characters in? Blanka hasn't made it into any of the crossover games yet and I would like to see him make it in one. Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 2 and 4? Maybe he's redundant with Chris Redfield already there. Samanosuke Akechi from Onimusha? It's not like he'd be the only one with a sword. Zack & Wiki? The little devil dude from Bombastic? The white wolf Ameratsu from Okami? No, no, and probably not. It's not like Capcom has a shortage of characters, but a lot of them are too short. I realize that the Vs series games has had more of an emphasis on having fun and wacky characters than having a well balanced roster, but I tire of playing against short opponents. Based on my past experience with the Vs games, I'd rather fight against the Hulk than Servbot.


I also wouldn't be surprised to see some appearances by newer characters from Lost Planet or Monster Hunter, or perhaps some more Darkstalkers characters to try and stir up interest for a new Darkstalkers game using the new game engine.


At this point, I would encourage anybody interested in Marvel vs Capcom 3 to keep checking Capcom's website at www.marvelvscapcom3.com for new characters as they're announced. And, after all this typing, I may post an abbreviations guide for Capcom fighting game titles so that I'm not retyping them constantly.